Consensus and Astroturf

Anthony Flint’s article in The Atlantic Cities, which compares Jane Jacobs’ protesting to current Tea Party protests against urban planning, inadvertently unmasks a serious issue in any consensus society. In drawing parallels between the near-riots of the 1960s and those of today, he invites us to look at what giving communities more power has wrought. Although his description of the Tea Party is clearly unsympathetic, he leaves two issues incompletely treated – grassroots activism versus astroturf, and starting versus shutting down discussions – and this gives a feeling of a meander, or at worst a late defense of top-down planning with no civic engagement.

Part of the issue of the attitude toward public debate has already been covered elsewhere. Emily Washington does a good job at demolishing the pretense that the Tea Party is consistently against government intervention, in favor of a view that it supports intervention as long as it’s in favor of what its members consider their kind of people. And far from trying to explain to people why its preference for intervention is better, as Jacobs did in The Death and Life, it prefers to yell: see, for example, how it acts in the East Bay.

But the issue of fake grassroots campaigns is as important. Although liberals should be wary of carelessly dismissing the Tea Party as merely a brand for the Koch brothers’ lobbying, it is a general fact that people who perceive themselves as the normals tend to think they speak for everyone when they do not. The Lower Manhattan Expressway really was unpopular in most of the West Village. How could it be otherwise in a neighborhood where a large majority of households did not even own cars? Jacobs, in other words, really was speaking for the community. The same is not true of people who think themselves the silent majority; going back to the East Bay example, after the local Tea Party leader had her tantrum, people informally voted on their priorities in urban planning, and urban priorities like controlling pollution came out on top whereas big houses with big yards came out at the bottom.

Fortunately, formal democratic governance can also reduce the influence of a pernicious majority. For example, the referendum process could be made binding, and more long-term. It’s unthinkable that a governor elected by a bare majority of voters can unilaterally cancel a long-term infrastructure investment without a referendum. In Germany, when the Stuttgart21 disaster led to a state government led by the anti-Stuttgart21 Greens, the new coalition did not act as Rick Scott did. Not only was the Greens’ approach more responsible – they put forth a counter-plan and hired Swiss railroad experts to help – but also they put the cancellation to a referendum, and when the cancellation lost, they accepted the result. And in Switzerland, the referendum process tends to lead to continuity of policy, rather than to the situation in the US, in which the referendum process means that groups will put their preferred policy on the ballot every two years until it passes, and then lock it in so that it cannot be repealed. Although in principle the California governance system looks like direct democracy, in practice it has as much to do with it as Putin’s managed democracy has to do with actual democracy. But insofar as consensus democracy was attempted in the East Bay, the Tea Party disruptors lost.

Of course, merely dismissing the Tea Party as a noisy minority is not enough. The importance of this episode is that consensus governance is vulnerable to this kind of astroturf, or even an independent community of true believers who think they represent many more people than they actually do. On issues that have a clear expert consensus, you won’t find many defenders of consensus governance. Voting on science education means that some school boards will support creationism (not for consensus reasons, but for religious ones). There is an entire movement dedicated to restoring top-down social control, whose leaders come from a background in science popularization that really does boil down to transmitting the experts’ conclusions to the masses.

And yet, urban planning is not evolutionary biology. The need for consensus comes from the fact that planners have a history of getting things wrong in a disastrous fashion, and often of being upended by laypeople like Jacobs. Authoritarian planning will treat entire classes of people as problems to be solved, and house them in a series of projects modeled after the modern prison system: project towers, group homes, low-rise projects, supervised releases to suburbia. Giving people this power over others and hoping that the people in power will be wise is wishful thinking; one might as well support absolute monarchy.

Thus, there is no way to both have a good governance mechanism and prevent people from staging revolts for wrong reasons. A democracy will sometimes vote the wrong people into power; democratic urban planning will let itself be disrupted by a group of organized radicals. In both cases, the change in power should not spell the end of democracy; the ousted side routinely regroups and wins later in national bipartisan politics, and regularly has some input about government in national multiparty politics. Maybe all cities need is to treat their planning process with the same respect that countries treat their legislative process.


  1. Adirondacker12800

    The Lower Manhattan Expressway really was unpopular in most of the West Village.

    The Lower Manhattan Expressway was going to go across what we now call SoHo and what was and is Little Italy.

  2. Aaron M. Renn

    Invariably, people will find reasons to believe that protestors who are on their side of an issue are right while those who are against it are somehow doing something wrong by their protests. The situations are always “completely different.” Nothing illustrates this more than the way people perceived the Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall St. Nobody really likes populism per se. They only like it to the extent that it produces or promotes the kind of results they want to see.

    • Nathanael Nerode

      The problem with the Tea Party was that most of them, judging by the record, believed demonstrably false things — in other words, they’d been brainwashed at some point.

      Their motives, I actually respect.

      Occupy Wall Street is more diverse — and again, some of the people involved believe demonstrably false things, but far fewer. Again, their motives, I respect, but this time I respect their intelligence, too.

  3. Stephen Smith

    A lot of your consensus posts end up sounding kind of tautological to me. The cures you prescribe – have more faith in government transit and planning! – just don’t seem very helpful.

    Anyway, at least at some points in time, there seem to be urbanist benefits to Americans’ less trustworthy attitudes when it comes to gov’t – I think you can plausibly argue that during the turn of the last century, continental European urban growth was somewhat stunted by Europeans’ willingness to accept height restrictions and other anti-density measures earlier on, at least in the commercial cores.

    • J B

      I think Alon is coming to the opposite conclusion- rather than simply trust in government “expertise”, people should have input in policies that effect them, and moreover input from all involved groups should be considered rather than just the single group that has power at the moment. You won’t necessarily end up with a more urbanist result, but you should get a better-functioning government that avoids some of the worst mistakes that planners have made.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s not really about having more faith in government transit. It’s about figuring out ways to increase participation and make the process more democratic. For a New York-specific example (granted, one that’s been completely bypassed by right-wing populism), the community boards could be elected rather than appointed, and at the same time given more planning powers. The kvetching about affordable housing would still be there, but at least you wouldn’t have neighborhoods with 30% car ownership supporting more parking and opposing dedicated bus lanes.

      In general, market mechanisms can work very well when supported by democratic decision (Switzerland, for one, has has economic policy well to the right of most other European countries, e.g. on health care). By themselves, market mechanisms don’t create democratic results. Before NEPA and local government kvetching, freeways were built to serve rich neighborhoods and impact poor neighborhoods, and road builders steamrolled all opposition. The same is more or less true today. The extra bureaucracy didn’t change the underlying feudalism that characterizes local US politics. Even further back, in the era of small government, railroads found it easier to buy government support than to build infrastructure with their own money. The upshot is that to achieve good market outcomes, government needs to be modified, rather than neutered.

      And on another note, European urban growth isn’t really stunted. It’s perfectly in line with Europe’s lower population growth rates. In the 20th century, the US quadrupled its population, while the various countries of Europe increased their populations by factors of 1.5-2.5. When those growth restrictions were a real obstacles, there would be rapid growth in the suburbs; this was the case for the growth of office towers in La Défense, or middle-class American residential construction in the era of redlining, but suburban residential growth in Europe is as moderate as urban growth.

      • Danny

        With the exception of the Credit-Mobilier scandal, where there was serious conspiracy and very lucrative rewards to politicians, money wasn’t generally doled out to politically connected railroads. Land, and rights-of-way were. For the most part, that land cost the US government practically nothing, and at the time it was worth practically nothing. Railroads still built the infrastructure using their own funding. The value that the government brought to the table wasn’t so much the value of the land so much as the guaranteed continuity of the rights-of-way.

        The decision to support railroads wasn’t made in the same corporatist political climate as today. Development was a very populist objective, and that support didn’t need to be bought…it was freely available to pretty much anybody that had the capability to build. Manifest Destiny was not a plot hatched by railroads, it was a vision of political origin…an excuse to declare war with Mexico. The railroads ended up coming away as the fatcats in the deal, but at the time, they were just pawns in a real-world game of Risk.

        • Nathanael Nerode

          “the guaranteed continuity of the rights-of-way. ”
          Yep. This is the primary reason railroads need governmental power.

  4. ardecila

    Is it even possible to build consensus in a nation of 300 million people stretching from sea-to-shining-sea? Politicians attempt to implement policies that favor their regions without considering or caring how the rest of the country feels.

    In transportation policy, conservatives consistently try to kill transit and intercity-rail funding despite the legitimate preference of certain states to receive such funds instead of highways. Why should a Texan president and an Arizona transportation secretary have any say in whether Northern Virginia builds a subway?

  5. Nathanael Nerode

    The real problem comes when the protestors/governments who do not represent the people are able to *lock in* their power — eliminating the ability of the people to, democratically, change their minds.

    This happened recently in Hungary, where the elected party Fidesz has effectively eliminated democracy and taken over the court system — it’s a dictatorship now.

    On a smaller scale, stuff like the 2/3 bullshit in Prop 13 should never have been permitted; the malapportionment of the US Senate is criminal; and the 60-vote bullshit in the US Senate is equally criminal.

    So-called “conservatives” really, really hate democracy, at *all* levels. It’s one thing to oppose consensus governance, but it’s another thing to hold out for minority control.

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